Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Easton History: Who Was Mammy Morgan?

"Mammy Morgan
Played de organ
Her daddy beat de Drum"

-rhyme repeated by local children, heard on Easton city streets, as late as the early 20th c.

"She was a friend of education and as early as 1820, she gave the lot and contributed toward the building of the Hope schoolhouse, with the understanding that it was to be free to all children and to be maintained by subscription to any who felt disposed to give."

"Oh, she was a bad woman, a witch woman and de folkses here used to hang her up a tree."

"she was Mother to the whole Township and her advise (sic) was always sought in any dispute between neighbors."

"rich and poor received her ministrations during affliction and she became known as die mommy among the Germans which, in her day, was a great distinction."

If one does an online search for "Easton haunting" as many are inclined to do this time of year, a name that will surface repeatedly is "Mammy Morgan" in connection with some ghosts that supposedly haunt the Easton Public Library, built on top of what was once Easton's first cemetery.

However, if you actually ask the living spirits that are employed at our impressive local book repository, they will tell you in no uncertain terms that the story of restless spirits is a myth, no matter how much some ghost hunters seem to wish it were true.

But while the vast majority of the departed were disinterred and relocated when the library was being erected at the turn of the last century, there are a few graves still located on the property.

A map of Easton, as it was in 1789, a few years before
Elizabeth Bell Morgan settled here,  just south
of the city. The hill was called South Mountain or
Lechau Hill at the time, but is now known as
 "Morgan's Hill" in her honor.
 The first, located in front of the building, is that of William Parsons, who surveyed the land and laid out the streets of the city's Downtown district.

The second, located on the west lawn, is actually the resting place of three people--Elizabeth Bell Morgan, aka "Mammy Morgan," and her two daughters.

The name Mammy Morgan is familiar to a lot of Easton locals, but not so many are able to articulate exactly who she was and what she did.

Some will say she was a "notorious" hotel owner and store-keeper, even alluding to the idea that she ran a house of ill-repute, while others speak of Morgan in tones of utmost respect.

This confusion is understandable--after all, she lived nearly two centuries ago, and not nearly so many pages of the history books are afforded to great women as they are to men.

One local history book, however, does take the trouble to shed some light on Morgan's life--"Historic Easton from the Window of a Trolley-car" by William J. Heller, published in 1911.

In Heller's words:

"Pretty Lizzie Bell was the daughter of Jacob and Ann Bell, residing on Front Street in Philadelphia, prior to the Revolutionary War.

Her parents were orthodox Quakers and consequently frowned upon a certain young grocer, Hugh Bay, son of Rev. Andrew Bay, a chaplain in the Provincial Army, who was getting very intimate with Elizabeth and who was not of their faith. They used mild methods to discourage this intimacy and, when a few years later, Hugh made his appearance dressed in the uniform of a noted artillery company in the Revolutionary service, he was refused admittance to the Bell domicile and Elizabeth was compelled to make closer application to her studies.

All went seemingly well until the British Army was reported coming to Philadelphia when its citizens prepared to repel the enemy by gathering all ammunition, collecting old lead and converting it into bullets.

Elizabeth, whether through born intuitiveness or from close application to study, at that opportune time, developed character that was one of the remarkable features in after life. She removed the leaden weights from her father's clock and converted them into bullets for her soldier lover, Hugh Bay. This, not only caused a flurry in Quakerdom, but so enraged her father that he forthwith transported her to Europe to finish her studies.

After the lapse of four years, her father, thinking that she had outlived her infatuation, brought her home. Elizabeth, however, true to her first love, was married to Hugh Bay in Swede's Church, Philadelphia, August 16, 1781. This act so shocked the orthodox Quaker congregation that they immediately called a special meeting at which a resolution was passed expelling Elizabeth from the congregation for marrying a worldly man and a certificate to that effect was given her.

What effect this had on her parents was unknown. Her father died a few years later and left the greater part of his wealth to Elizabeth and her mother.

Hugh made a good husband and maintained a fine home on a fashionable street. After a marriage of three years, he unfortunately died, leaving only one child, Anna.

Elizabeth remained a widow six years, when on September 2, 1790, she became the wife of Dr. Abel Morgan, a prominent physician of Philadelphia and formerly a surgeon in the Revolutionary Army.

Two months later, her mother died.

With the exception of a birth of another daughter, nothing eventful transpired until 1793 when the great epidemic broke out in Philadelphia when Dr. Morgan took precautionary measures and removed his family from Philadelphia to the Lehigh Hills...Dr. Morgan selected for his retreat, a hotel on top of the hill overlooking the "Forks of the Delaware."

This delightful locality was a favorite of Dr. Morgan's when he was a surgeon in the Revolutionary Army and encamped with his regiment at Colonel Proctor's headquarters, along the ravine to the south of what is now Kleinhan's greenhouses which was then along the main road to Easton from the south.

Dr. Morgan, after seeing his family comfortably settled, returned to Philadelphia to help stamp out the epidemic. Elizabeth, not receiving any communication from him for upwards of two months and quarantine being removed from Philadelphia, concluded to make a trip there. On her arrival at her Philadelphia home, she found that the servants had decamped, the house was ransacked from garret to cellar and everything of value confiscated.

At a loss to know what became of her husband, she made inquiry of the health officers and found that her husband had contracted the malady and died within a few days of his arrival and was buried in the trench along with the rest. This double affliction required considerable fortitude to withstand.

Finding herself the second time, a widow, she disposed of her fine home and all her interests in Philadelphia and returned to the "Hills" with the purpose of living in quiet retirement of her two daughters. She never returned to Philadelphia but purchased the hotel property in which she had taken up her abode and lived there for upwards of fifty years.

Mrs. Morgan made use of her excellent education; she possessed a fine library and her favorite pastime was reading law books, of which she had a complete set. These were kept on a bench in the public room where she would dispense law when occasion required. This room, in time, became the popular retreat for those of her neighbors who could not settle their differences themselves. They would invariably refer their case to this improvised court. A request for her decision was never refused; both young and old respected her judgment and seldom was there an appeal to a higher tribunal.

This condition of affairs brough forth a protest from the legal fraternity of Easton who endeavored, by various methods, to break up the practice. Reflections as to her character and the character of the place were made bringing her name into ridicule for the unthinking.

All this unkindness toward the "widow" Morgan only increased her popularity. Few of these gentry of the bar could boast of a better legal education than Elizabeth Morgan and none of a better university training; her last will and testament (written by herself), for scholarly composition and legal construction is the peer of any like instrument of any of the legal fraternity of her day.

Steeled to adversity, never showing resentment toward her traducers, living a good and true life, a kind and generous neighbor, ministering to the afflicted, adusting neighborly disputes for many years, she died October 16, 1839, aged 80 years and was buried in the Reformed cemetery on Mount Jefferson (now the site of the new library).

The grave of Elizabeth Bell Morgan, aka "Mammy Morgan", as it is today,
on the west lawn of the Easton Public Library.

Her obsequies was attended by people from far and near, her funeral cortege being nearly two miles long reaching from the cemetary gates to a point along the Philadelphia road beyond Lachenour Heights, South Side."

Elizabeth Bell Morgan, aka Mammy Morgan, passed from this Earth 173 years ago today, leaving our city a better, as well as more interesting, place for her being a vital part of it.

We think we could use a few more great citizens like her today.

To access the full text of "Historic Easton from the Window of a Trolley-car" by William J. Heller, available for free in a variety of electronic formats, click here. The passages reprinted above begin on page 27.

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